How to help children understand death?

Une personne âgée lit un livre avec un enfant

Twins Elliot and Lucas adored their grandfather. They did everything together. But this morning, Mathilda received news that Gramps had passed on. With a heavy heart, she knew she would have to tell her 7-year-old sons that their best friend was gone. But how?

How do children perceive death?

Children's perception of death changes as they grow up. When they’re young, it’s difficult for them to fully grasp the inevitability and finality of death.

Much like adults, they react differently to the loss of a loved one. Their age, their closeness to the relative (or pet) and the circumstances of the death are all factors that will influence their grief.

Before talking about grief with them, it's important to determine where they are in their development and level of understanding.

Ages 0-3

At this stage, children have no actual concept of death. It’s too abstract. Death is most likely perceived as loss or abandonment.

Ages 4-8

At this stage, children begin to grasp the concept of death. In fact, it might be frightening to them. They find it hard to understand its finality. They tend to still believe that the deceased will eventually come back to life. Since they are unable to grasp the inevitability of death, they often try to find explanations and ask themselves many questions. For example, did the person die to punish me? Mathilda will have to keep this in mind when she talks to Elliott and Lucas.

Ages 8-12

At this stage, children begin to understand that the deceased will never come back. However, they might wonder why someone so dear to them had to die. Why not someone else?

12 and over

Teenagers understand the finality of death. They realize that we all have to ‘go’ at some point, they just don’t think it’s going to happen to them—but that's another subject.

How do children react?

Like adults, children grieve in phases. They may, however, find it more difficult to express their feelings. The following reactions are generally observed:

  • sadness
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • denial
  • guilt
  • no motivation
  • misbehaviour
  • acceptance

How do we support them through the grieving process?

Children need the support of those closest to them. Often, upon seeing their parents’ distress, they will keep their feelings bottled up because they don’t want to be seen as an additional burden.

So, without foregoing her own needs or hiding her emotions, Mathilda must do her best to listen. That way, her sons will open up to her. Here are a few tips:

Tell the truth

There's no point in lying to protect your children. They need to know what's going on.

Weigh your words

Don’t play down the gravity of the situation to try to soften the blow. Avoid telling them stories and using expressions like ‘a long sleep’ or ‘gone away for a while’. The reason for this is because children take things literally. Also, Elliott and Lucas would be waiting a long time for Gramps to return, which would only postpone the shock and suffering.

Offer comfort

Explain that it's normal to grieve and cry when you lose a loved one. Point out that adults cry too. Hugs are good.


Tragedy causes anxiety. Children may begin to fear for their future or feel that they are partly to blame for what happened. They need to be reassured as soon as possible. They must understand that their behaviour has no influence on the death of a loved one.

Accept how children express themselves

Drawing, acting, poetry, songwriting: children often express their emotions through creativity. Mathilda must encourage this.

Un enfant colorie en présence de sa mère

Bringing children to the funeral

When appropriate, take the children to the funeral home or service. Be sure to explain what will happen though. Talk to them about the:

  • coffin/casket or urn
  • service or ceremony
  • deceased’s last wishes
  • traditions
  • cemetery or columbarium

Maintain a routine

Once the funeral is over with, resume your normal routine (meals, bedtime, etc.).

Don’t close the subject

Finally, for Mathilda and for her twins, the best thing to do to ease the pain is to continue talking about it. Gramps’ death does not have to be taboo. Mathilda and her sons can honour his memory for as long as they feel the need to.

Suggested resources

Online: (This hyperlink will open in a new tab). is a free online resource that provides learning modules designed to support children who are grieving.

At the movies: Ponette (This hyperlink will open in a new tab). is a captivating 1996 French film directed by Jacques Doillon about how a little girl copes with her mother's death.